New Delhi: A senior citizen at the protest gathering against the gang rape of a 23-year-old girl on a Delhi bus, hands joined together and barely coherent amidst her sobs, pleaded to the men in the crowd: "Please for God's sake, allow us to be. Protect us if we can't protect ourselves and do not take advantage of us. You were born from us. We are your mothers and sisters."
The protesters had more than sufficient cause for anguish. The 23-year-old medical student who boarded a private bus from South Delhi's Munrika towards Palam was brutally gangraped, while her male companion was assaulted with an iron rod, after which both were thrown out of the bus near the Mahipalpur flyover. The girl, who suffered intestinal damage and severe injuries on her head and face after being assaulted by a blunt object, was put on 'full-time ventilatory support' after her condition deteriorated last evening and is still in the ICU at Safdarjang Hosptal.
As the men watched the old lady cry in silence and TV cameras flocked to her for rich visuals, the young women among the protestors were more bitter.
"Delhi's buses have always been unsafe and while each time it may not be a case of rape, there's always some kind of sexual harassment -- nudging, leaning, rubbing, pinching, blatantly groping, crude sexual language and the like," said Kopal, a PhD student of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "In situations of sexual harassment, one can't help but notice the distinct divide in men and women. The men will always support the man accused of misbehaving."
Delhi buses have been an infamous space for sexual harassment. Stories of assault, serious and minor, are an unfortunate rite of passage for girls in the capital traveling by public transport -- which meant traveling by buses -- before the Delhi Metro came along.
While this uncouth behavior has been in existence for years, most citizens say, things have not changed and nobody cares. Kopal, a Delhi girl, has been a lifelong commuter of the city's buses. "There's nothing unprecedented about it and traveling in buses was always bad, and still is. To give you an example, women commuters not only get harassed in buses but they also have to demand and fight with men for what is rightfully theirs. Case in point is the seats reserved for women in buses," she said.
Another student at JNU, someone who identified herself as Bipasha and a PhD student of environmental science, said that unlike Kolkata, her hometown, Delhi suffers from a complete apathy towards women.
"In Kolkata, one cannot even dream of molesting or sexually harassing a woman and getting away with it -- whether on public transport systems, or on roads. The perpetrators will be beaten up by the public. There's no two ways about it," she said, adding, "Delhi, on the other hand, is not just completely indifferent, but also insensitive. If someone is being molested or harassed and raises their voice, even the person sitting next to you will behave as if there's nothing wrong and it's normal. People here behave like it's a show to be watched as a spectator ."
"We have always been told that of all public transport, buses are the safest in the evenings and nights, as there are bound to be other co-passengers. That they are safer than say autos. But if co-passengers turn blind and that public turns perpetrator, how safe are we?" Bipasha asks.
Kirti Singh, Supreme Court lawyer and women's rights advocate, believes that our justice system must take very stringent measures against perpetrators of rape. "You have to punish such aggressors in a particular (stringent) way in a civilised society, so that people know they can't get away. So that it acts as a deterrent," she said.
Men who are aggressors, cannot go scot free and cannot blame their aggression towards women on their frustration or anger. "One may be an angry person generally but why is that anger only directed at servants or women and not on their bosses or superiors? It's a backlash against the mobility and autonomy of women," Singh said, further explaining, "Many of these perpetrators will subscribe to the idea of wives and daughters staying at home behind closed doors and go out and rape women because to them the empowered women signify an independence from men. To them, women who have and live their own lives are 'bad women', who deserve to be raped."
Without the assurance of public support, Delhi women have been forced to rely on their own means of defense, usually safety pins and pepper sprays. But many of the protestors at Tuesday's gathering said that while citizens need to be more proactive, the system needs to plug the holes.
"If bystanders are not complaining about something or being involved citizens, there must be a reason for it. Maybe they want to but then our public justice system is so flawed that they may be afraid that if they get involved, they may be the ones implicated," Kopal said. "The state government spends so much money on various celebrations, why can't they channelise that money into providing better security for women, sensitising people and even the police towards crimes against women?" she asks.
Bipasha rubbishes the claims of some top cops who frame rape as a socio-cultural problem, as when Delhi's Police Commissioner, Neeraj Kumar, told Firstpost, "I do believe that it is more a socio-cultural problem than a law and order one. By socio-cultural I mean that the milieu here is different from the milieu in the northeast or other parts of the country. Here (in Delhi), attitude towards the woman are different. So any outsider woman, who comes to live in Delhi, finds herself to be the odd person out". Whatever the cultural roots of a crime, argues Bipasha, if it is against the law, it must be dealt with accordingly.
"Or else, why do we need the police?" she asks.
According to Delhi Police data, there were 480 reported cases of rape last year and 580 cases of sexual assault this year. Delhi has also seen 10 rapes that have taken place in moving vehicles, in the last 10 years.
The Delhi government is expected to take up a proposal to set up fast track courts in the state to disburse speedy justice to rape victims and Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde on Tuesday constituted a special committee to look into the safety of women in Delhi.
These lofty plans, however, seem less than comforting when even existing measures to protect women are poorly executed. The Delhi's Women's Helpline, a hotline number for women in distress, for example, is unusable for all practical purposes.
The Delhi Police website shows its women helpline numbers as 1091 and 011-24121234. When this reporter called the numbers, 1091 wouldn't even connect and a lady who picked up the phone on the landline number said the number was not for complaints.
Delhi Transport Corporation's helpline number (9604400400), too, was of no help. Callers to this number receive a recorded message saying the call is being forwarded to another number after which it promptly gets disconnected.
The helpline numbers on the Delhi Commission for Women website too don't work.
With no robust security, male perpetrators who often go scot-free, apathetic co-citizens, and officials who advocate restricting women's rights as a solution, the city's women say they have to take things into their own hands.
"You have to be bold and we have to claim our own space," Kopal said, "Our biggest weapon is our gut and our voice, which we must raise. Mobility is a very important issue and we women must claim back our right to it."
Till that time, we will continue to see young, bright and promising girls raped and women like the senior citizen -- attending the protest outside Vasant Vihar Police Station yesterday -- pleading to a disinterested crowd.